Sign of Sleaze

While commissioners dither, advertisers get away with (visual) murder

Why have so many murals been looked over for so long?

One possible explanation is cross-pollination between advertisers and city officials. Irain Gonzalez, who until July was chief of operations for code enforcement, recently took a job with Fuel Outdoor, a company that is responsible for some of the renegade ads cited by Sarnoff. Reached in Dallas, where he has moved, Gonzalez denies any conflict of interest. "I understand the city charter and codes. I understand what my limits are, and I was hired to start this venture in Dallas, Texas. I'm not dealing with the city government of Miami." His new job, he explains, is to "find permitted assets throughout the city — large format ... what you would call murals."

"It's municipal prostitution at its worst," says Dusty Melton, a lobbyist who helped craft the county's 1985 billboard ban. "Mural companies admit they're breaking the law, and the city says, 'Okay, we'll take your money and leave you alone.' ... The city has become business partners with the criminal element of the mural industry."

In the middle of Overtown, a mural is a quick way to make a buck
Isaiah Thompson
In the middle of Overtown, a mural is a quick way to make a buck

City commissioners have been dithering for two years on a law to regulate this mess. An ordinance exceedingly friendly to the industry was drafted but never acted upon.

This past July 26, Sarnoff presented a new proposal. It would limit the number of murals to 15, to be decided by a lottery. Owners cited by code enforcement in the past five years would be unable to immediately apply. "I don't see why an illegal mural company should have the same advantages as a company that's played by the rules," Sarnoff says.

It didn't go over very well. Commissioner Angel Gonzalez moved to defer the item, declaring his agenda had been "hijacked" and reminding all in attendance that "I was appointed chair of this commission, and while I'm chair of this commission, I'm going to run the agenda.... For people that like it or not, I'm running this commissioner [sic]."

Commissioner Michelle Spence Jones jumped in to say she was "really trying to digest this whole thing," and asked for "a little bit more time before I make a decision on what I'm going to do." A vote on the measure was deferred, and probably won't come up again until October.

Several days after that meeting, Spence Jones talked to Assistant City Attorney Kimberly Smith about proposing her own mural law. A draft that resulted from that conversation was much more lax than Sarnoff's. It would allow 45 murals instead of 15, and provide for looser rules in parts of Park West, near the Miami Arena, called the Entertainment District. Owners of at least two buildings with large murals in that area have ties to Spence Jones. Big Time Productions, which has hosted meetings of the Community Redevelopment Agency (chaired by Spence Jones) owns one of them. Royal Palm Entertainment, which contributed generously to her campaign, owns another.

But Spence Jones aide Alexander Koteles says his boss will not be presenting the proposal after all. He expects commissioners to reach a compromise.

For his part, Sarnoff says he is willing to consider easing restrictions on the Entertainment District: "I may have some flexibility there, but what I don't want to have happen is I don't want the performing arts center surrounded by murals; we spent half a billion dollars on a building — I don't see why we need to surround it with wall art." If he had his way, Sarnoff says, he'd ban murals altogether. But politics is politics.

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